There's more to a regenerative food system than just being a new buzzword to talk about how food is produced. It's a clarion call for sweeping changes to collectively improve the food system for the benefit of everybody – and the planet too.
For years the focus in food and agriculture has been on sustainability – not taking more from the planet than is being put back. But the impact of climate change, health inequalities and loss of biodiversity has resulted in an awareness that more ambitious goals are needed. Regenerative practices aim for a net positive impact rather than just standing still by replenishing and restoring the interlinked food ecosystem.
A regenerative food system is one that helps improve the soil and biodiversity at the start of the food system – and improve health, wellbeing and livelihoods at the other end. Each of the stages between will also need to be regenerative too – for example recycling of packaging to make new packaging.
For Nestlé, the regenerative idea started in agriculture. Our farmers wanted to do more than act sustainably: they wanted to improve their land and environment. Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that aims to improve soil health and soil fertility, as well as protecting water resources and biodiversity.
Restoring soil health helps draw down and capture increased levels of carbon in soils and plant biomass. Healthier soils are also more resilient to the impacts of climate change and can increase yields, helping improve farmers' livelihoods. Reducing and eliminating pesticides and herbicides can also positively impact the health and wellbeing of farm workers and communities and improve biodiversity.
Regenerative agriculture looks at ways to conserve and restore forests – including rainforests - rather than simply managing deforestation better. This includes ways in which agriculture can improve carbon capture, both in methods of farming and crops grown.
For farmers this is not an aspirational approach, it is a pragmatic one. It's a way of securing their future by having healthy, productive land with soils that resist erosion and provide nourishment for crops, their pollinators and livestock. In turn, lower levels of fertilisers are needed, not only reducing the carbon footprint from their creation, but also the cost of inputs for the farmer.
The principles of regenerative agriculture are as follows:
- Avoid disturbing the soil
- Keep soil covered as much as possible to protect it from adverse weather conditions
- Keep living roots growing in the soil through the use of cover crops and rotating crops
- Increase both crop diversity and biodiversity
- Integrate trees and hedges, through agroforestry and silvopasture
- Introduce rotational grazing of livestock
Why food systems need to be regenerative from farm to fork
The natural world has an in-built capacity to grow, evolve and thrive. In nature, there is no such thing as waste - everything works together in a regenerative way – for example animals can feed on crops and then their manure will provide fertiliser for next year's yield. Legumes can help set nitrogen in the soil for other crops to use.
The food system now needs to work in a similar way by adopting similar principles and practices. As Rob Cameron, Global Head of Public Affairs and ESG Engagement at Nestlé puts it: "It is time for business to be inspired by nature – to move from a linear "take-make-use-lose" model that extracts value, to one that is circular, and operates in the interests of the system as a whole to sustain and enhance its health."
Regenerative food systems will pay close attention to:
The energy used to process food products and their delivery systems is a key consideration in regenerative systems. Manufacturers can switch to renewable electricity and delivery vehicles that emit less carbon can be used. For example, in the UK we've already switched 75% of our owned fleet of trucks from diesel to Bio-LNG, a liquefied gas which is a by-product of waste. And as the remaining trucks in the fleet reach their end of life they too will be replaced by Bio-LNG models.
The food system creates huge amounts of waste in some places while others experience famine. Minimising waste at every step along the way is essential; from "ugly" fruit and vegetables being sold in supermarkets, to restaurants right-sizing servings with a food waste audit to waste being turned into feedstuff, compost or bio-energy.
Some packaging protects foodstuffs from being damaged, contaminated or extends their shelf-life. However, if the packaging then goes to landfill it requires new material to be found. Finding truly effective ways of collecting and recycling packaging is essential, alongside finding non-plastic alternatives.
For example, Buxton Natural Mineral Water has achieved its 2019 commitment to not only have recyclable packaging but to help close the recycling loop by making its full range of bottles with recycled PET1 plastic (rPET), excluding caps and labels.
The food industry needs to move toward a variety of solutions appropriate for the product. These can include:
- Paper packaging
- Increasing the use of recycled, bio-based and biodegradable content in packaging
- Simplifying packaging
- Implementing refillable and reusable systems
Encouraging consumers to opt for smaller portion sizes, whole grain cereals, eating more meat-free meals and choosing tasty foods low in fat, sugar and salt will have an impact on both health and the farming system. This may require reformulation of some products, including increasing positive nutrients and ingredients often lacking in diets, such as essential vitamins and minerals .
In terms of farming, vegan and vegetarian diets have the greatest reduction in land use and greenhouse gas emissions. And vegetarian diets use the least water, according to the EAT-Lancet Commission report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. This is also in line with consumer demand. Mintel reports that the number of Brits who have eaten meat-free foods soared to 65% in 2019, sales of meat-free foods grew an impressive 40% in the four years to 2019 and sales are expected to be in excess of £1.1bn by 2024.
So how could a regenerative food system work?
Food businesses will need to look at every stage of their process, from farm to fork, to see what the opportunities are to make them more regenerative. This will require:
- Collaboration – working with suppliers, customers and government to set standards
- Transformation – to shift thinking and systems from current models to find new, urgently needed solutions for the challenges of climate change, food insecurity and inequalities, and to increase resilience in the food system
- Regeneration – finding ways to heal past harms and improve lives and livelihoods
What's Nestlé's approach to regenerative food systems?
In September 2021, Nestlé announced our intention to advance regenerative food systems at scale.
This means supporting the development of food systems that protect, renew and restore the environment, improve the livelihoods of farmers and enhance the resilience and well-being of farming communities. This is what we mean by a just transition. Farmers and communities should be supported through this change and benefit from it.
What advancing regenerative food systems at scale means to Nestlé
We are very clear in our intention. Each word in below explains a specific part of our shift in thinking and the acceleration of our activities:
- Advance by raising our voice and using our influence to drive progress in collaboration with others
- Regenerative to help protect, renew and restore farmland and landscapes
- Food systems encompass every actor, activity, process and product in growing, raising, making, delivering and consuming food
- At scale because the planet, communities and individuals need global, systems-level change
Share your views
We know we don’t have all the answer to improving the food system. If you have ideas you would like to share about what more we could be doing, we would love to hear from you.